The Genteel
February 28, 2021


Issey Miyake and Irving Penn: An Anti-Collaboration

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A projection wall of Irving Penn photographs (Source: Courtesy Photo).

On September 16, 2011, Tokyo gallery 21_21 Design Sight (21_21) unveiled Irving Penn and Issey Miyake: Visual Dialogue, an exhibition focusing on the collaborative work of the late American photographer, Irving Penn and Japanese designer, Issey Miyake. 

Collaborations between designers, photographers and/or other artists happen regularly in the fashion industry and, indeed, the results of which have often made a lasting impression on the fashion world.  Take for instance the on-going collaboration between Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murukami for Louis Vuitton. The partnership produced many iconic works, including the Monogram Cerise and the "Monogramoflage", and was a huge commercial success.

If goal setting and communication are the foundations of collaboration, it could be said that theirs was the ultimate "anti-collaboration".

Whilst creative collaborations are common, few can be said to be as unique as Penn and Miyake's. Their's spanned from 1987 to 1999 - a remarkable 13 years - during which Penn photographed each season of the Issey Miyake collection, ultimately producing a catalogue of 250 photographs.  Most remarkable, however, was that not once during the 13-year period did Penn attend an Issey Miyake show nor did Miyake provide Penn with any input as to the artistic direction of the photographs.

"Mr. Miyake followed a self-imposed rule to never be present at a photo sitting. He believed that by staying away, Mr. Penn would have a greater sense of freedom. He entrusted everything to Mr. Penn," said Midori Kitamura,
director of the exhibit and close colleague of Miyake, in an interview published on 21_21's website.  In contrast, in Time Magazine, Jacobs said of his collaboration with Murukami that, "we would have a game of 'catch ball', throwing ideas and images back and forth, usually over e-mail, until we were both satisfied." By giving Penn complete creative freedom with the photographs, an incredible "visual dialogue" between the two artists developed that had a lasting effect on their respective artistic visions.  If goal setting and communication are the foundations of collaboration, it could be said that theirs was the ultimate "anti-collaboration".

Issey Miyake Staircase Dress, New York, 1994 
(Copyright by The Irving Penn Foundation).

Miyake first encountered Penn in 1983 when Penn photographed Miyake's clothing for an editorial feature in American Vogue.  Miyake was amazed by Penn's fresh take: "I was looking for the one person who could look at my clothing, hear my voice, and answer me back through his own creation. I searched long for such a person and found in Penn-san," said Miyake in Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (1997).

Each season, after returning to Tokyo from the shows in Paris, Miyake and Kitamura would select clothing for Kitamura to take to New York to be photographed by Penn. "We tried to choose the pieces that would inspire Penn the most. No matter how beautiful the piece, we did not bring anything whose form was too simple. Although the final selection would only be three or four pieces, we would send about 40 pieces from which Penn could choose," recalls Kitamura. "Mr. Penn was always waiting with great anticipation for the clothes I'd bring".  Kitamura would show the pieces and when Penn found one to his liking, she would have a model try it on so that he could see the clothes in motion. 
"At these moments, Penn would say for example, 'Midori, this piece is certainly interesting but could you add more volume to the side?' I'd think, 'Oh no, there's nothing to add but maybe this mini skirt will work' and wrap it on. Then, the piece becomes interesting. Penn would direct the model to pose in different ways, and then when he found what he was looking for, start drawing a sketch of the clothing as well as the makeup and hair. These sketches will also be on display at the exhibition,"
said Kitamura.

Each time Miyake looked at the photographs that resulted from the New York shoots, he was startled, yet inspired, by Penn's interpretation, which in turn, became inspiration for his next collection. Miyake stated that "through his eyes Penn-san reinterprets the clothes, gives them new breath, and presents them to me from a new vantage point - one that I may not have been aware of, but had been subconsciously trying to capture. Without Penn-san's guidance, I probably could not have continued to find new themes with which to challenge myself, nor could I have arrived at new solutions."

Each season, Penn and Miyake would come full circle, with Miyake throwing visual stimuli Penn's way and Penn embracing and interpreting them; Penn seeing Miyake's pieces for the first time with fresh eyes and Miyake working from Penn's interpretation. For 13 years, Miyake and Penn continued their non-verbal dialogue solely through sight, in what became their unique form of communication and "anti-collaboration".

Irving Penn and Issey Miyake: Visual Dialogue runs from September 16, 2011 until April 8, 2012.



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